Kanesville Tabernacle

Note: The following article was written before the replica tabernacle was removed. The replica tabernacle, which could no longer safely accommodate visitors, was dismantled beginning on April 4, 2022. In its place are walkways, landscaping with native shrubs and plants, sculptures, and self-guided interpretive signs to share the Church’s history in the area, including the Saints settling along the Missouri River, the Mormon Battalion mustering and Oliver Cowdery’s return to the Church, said Jacob Olmstead, a historic sites curator for the Church History Department. The visitors’ center remains.

Kanesville Tabernacle

The replicated Kanesville Tabernacle is important as an HISTORIC SITE and as a community symbol.  It has now been rebuilt to its original condition in the heart of Council Bluffs, a place to arouse spiritual as well as historical interests and to act as a bridge of friendship between the present-day citizens of Iowa and the descendants of those pioneers who so long ago settled this territory.

The process of rebuilding the Kanesville Tabernacle has cast light on the history of Iowa all along the Iowa Mormon Trail from Nauvoo, Illinois to Council Bluffs, Iowa.  It is a new awakening from a deep historical slumber.

About 17,000 Mormons fled in wagons between March and October 1846 from attacks of mobs who were confused and enraged by the growing power, prosperity, and peculiarities of the Mormon people, especially at Nauvoo.  This migration of the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to their Zion in the Rocky Mountains was to become the greatest migration in American history.  It built with it one of America’s great pioneer trails from Nauvoo, Illinois, across the state of Iowa to Kanesville and on along the north side of the Platte River to the Rocky Mountains.   This great migration, together with the California Gold Rush of 1849, caused the city of Kanesville to become a major outfitting place serviced by the Council Point settlement on the river itself with a depot called Emigrant Landing.  Steamboats came up the Mississippi River from New Orleans to the Missouri River and then up to Kanesville, carrying immigrants by the thousands from other parts of the United States, Canada and Europe.

The Iowa Journal of History prepared by the Historical Association of the State of Iowa tells us:  “Council Bluffs has its roots in a temporary Mormon (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) settlement of 1847 known as Kanesville.  Officially it dates from 1853, when by an act of the state legislature it became incorporated under its present name…Recognized as a depot of the Saints, it also ranked high as an outfitting place for emigrants bound for other parts of the Great West.”

In 1846, the frontier border of the United States was the Missouri River and Kanesville was where the west really began.  Today, the Mormon Trail from Nauvoo, Illinois to Utah is a National Trail.  The Department of the Interior is building a large National Trails Center in the southwestern part of Council Bluffs. [The center has been finished and is currently open to visitors.] (The Trails Center is now closed – editor.)

The Iowa Journal of History continues:  “In 1846 the advance legion of the Latter-day Saints had moved across Iowa and temporarily settled in Indian territory, a few miles above the place where Omaha and Kanesville were to rise.   Three thousand four hundred and eighty-three of those strong in the (r) faith clung to life in their 641 log huts, sod houses and dens during the winter of 1846-1847.   Quite fittingly did they name the settlement ‘Winter Quarters.’  In the spring of 1847, the first pioneering band led by Brigham Young departed for the unknown Zion (in the Rocky Mountains).  Those remaining moved over to the east side of the river, many of them settling in Miller’s Hollow.  The town was soon named “Kanesville”…in honor of Thomas M. Kane, an influential friend from Pennsylvania.  In the fall of 1848, a visitor from St. Joseph stopped at the ‘Holler.’  He saw the temple (Tabernacle), resplendent in its yellow mud roof, its brushwood ceiling, and its puncheon floors.  An observer might have concluded that this was to be but a temporary settlement, one that would be evacuated as soon as the residents had the wherewithal to travel on to Salt Lake.”

The first newspaper west of the Mississippi, the Frontier Guardian, was established here.  Pottawattamie County, the largest county in Iowa, was founded in January 1848; and then the Mormons, between the years of 1850 and 1853, split off and formed Mills, Harrison and Shelby Counties.

Thus, in a single few months of 1846, the Mormons in Kanesville, Iowa, were established.  Temporary though their quarters may have been, as was the custom of the Latter-day Saints, they built schools, churches, homes and formed city and county governments.  They formed a system of courts, encouraged scores of tuition schools, a postal service, stagecoach lines in southwest Iowa and built three ferries over the Missouri.  The Orson Hyde Music Hall was built.  By the time the Mormons had left for the Rocky Mountains in 1854, they had established the farming and cattle industries that are prevalent in Iowa today and established over eighty other communities in the surrounding area.  Across the Missouri River in Nebraska Indian Territory, there were another 6,000 inhabitants who established a temporary weigh station town they called Winter Quarters.  There they laid out a town with log cabins, sod huts, tents and caves and built a grist mill which still stands today in northeast Omaha.   Two years later, those who did not go west in 1847-48 moved back to Kanesville.

When the LDS migration first arrived, they stopped at a giant field area some nine miles in length, just south of present-day Council Bluffs, now occupied by the Iowa School for the Deaf, called “Grand Encampment.”  As the pioneers soon needed more water, forage, and wood, they began to fan out until the Encampment had spawned eighty communities, many of which are still in existence today.

General Allen and Thomas Kane arrived at this Grand Encampment with a request from the President of the United States for volunteers to assist in fighting the Mexican War.  From this encampment, on July 13, 1846, despite the lack of previous help from the United States government requested by the Mormons, Mormon volunteers demonstrated their patriotism; and five hundred men formed the Mormon Battalion and marched by foot on the longest military march in history to San Diego, California, reaching there the following January.

Thomas L. Kane described what Grand Encampment looked like and told the Historical Society of Pennsylvania the following:  “Each one of the Council Bluffs hills was crowned with its own camp, gay with bright white canvas and alive with the busy stir of swarming occupants.  In the clear blue morning air, the smoke streamed up from the more than a thousand cooking fires.  Countless roads and by-paths checkered all manner of geometric figures on the hillside.  Here boys were dozing upon the slopes; sheep and horses, cows and oxen, were feeding around them and other herds in the luxuriant meadow of the then swollen river.  From a single point I counted four thousand head of cattle in view at one time.  As I approached the camps, it seemed to me the children there were to prove still more numerous.  Along a little creek I had to cross were women in greater force than blanchisseuses upon the Seine, washing and rinsing all manner of white muslin, red flannels and parti-colored calicoes and hanging them upon a greater area of grass and bushes than we can display in all our Washington Square.”

What then was the “Kanesville Tabernacle?”  Why was it such a sacred and historic building to the Mormon pioneers?

In June 1844, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Prophet Joseph Smith, was martyred in Carthage Jail in Carthage, Illinois.   Upon the death of Joseph Smith, the Quorum of the First Presidency of the Church was automatically dissolved, and the total leadership responsibility fell on the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles led by the President of the Quorum of the Twelve, Brigham Young.

Fundamental in the LDS Church doctrine is a belief “in the same organization that existed in the primitive church during the ministry of Jesus Christ.”  Thus, like the church that Christ established anciently, this latter-day restoration of that church is led by twelve Apostles.  The Apostles, Peter, James, and John presided over the early Church as a three-person presidency.   Likewise, the LDS Church is led by a three-person presidency with a senior Apostle, like Peter, as President.

It was not until December 5, 1847, in a meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles held in Orson Hyde’s home in Hyde Park (southeast of Council Bluffs), that the Quorum of the Twelve in a full council meeting unanimously sustained Brigham Young as the President of the Church.

The primary purpose for building this Kanesville Tabernacle in 1846 was to hold a conference at which the Church’s Quorum of the First Presidency could be reconstituted and sustained by the votes of the Church members.

Brigham Young assigned Henry Miller to build a cabin large enough to house a meeting to hold a Solemn Assembly to present the reorganization of the First Presidency to the members of the Church for their sustaining vote.  He and 200 other men, in just three weeks, built the log tabernacle for this occasion.  It was 65 ft. by 40 ft. and, at the time, was the largest cabin known.  The Tabernacle was dedicated December 24, 1847, and on December 27, 1847, a Solemn Assembly was held in the newly completed Tabernacle where Brigham Young was sustained by members of the Church as their new Prophet and President.  This was the first such Solemn Assembly since the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith.  This was a momentous occasion for the pioneers.

Since then, whenever a president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dies, the First Presidency again is dissolved, and a Solemn Assembly is held to sustain a new First Presidency.  All succeeding Solemn Assemblies held since then have been held in the historic Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the broadcasts of the famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir originate each Sunday morning.

The Kanesville Tabernacle today has been rebuilt to resemble the original as closely as possible with the only changes being those required by present-day building codes and regulations.  It is hoped that this Tabernacle will be a source of inspiration to the citizens of Iowa to continue to research their pioneer heritage.

After the massive LDS exodus of 1852 from Kanesville to the Rocky Mountains and the final exodus of 1853, the name of the town was changed from Kanesville to Council Bluffs.  All street names were changed.  City and county records were forgotten.  The citizens lost track of their city’s origin.  With this restoration of the Kanesville Tabernacle, interest is being rekindled.  Historical records are being retrieved, studied, and discussed.  Bonds of empathy are forming with those who came before.

It was here where the pioneers of 1846 stopped to rest and to build settlements for those who would come after them, here where the connecting link took place that bound the east and the west together to become one nation coast to coast.  It was here also, high on the same bluffs which these pioneers called Kanesville, that Abraham Lincoln, a close friend, and military companion of Henry Miller who built the Tabernacle, stood one day, and looking out over the wide western horizon across the Missouri, was inspired to select this area to start the Union Pacific Railroad system that would further link America from east to west.  It was this area that Lewis and Clark came through so long ago on their great expedition to the West Coast.  It was here that a great council was held with many of the Indian tribes to settle their land disputes.  It was here that Chief Standing Bear, with the help of the attorneys for the Union Pacific Railroad, won that monumental legal decision that established once and for all that an Indian was also a human being, subject to the same rights as all whites.

It seems only fitting that a major restoration project should be built here, reminiscent of the founding of this important locality in our American history.  We pay tribute and express our deep appreciation to the Pottawattamie County Mormon Trail Association and Kanesville Restoration, Inc., the citizens, and government officials of Council Bluffs who have also given enthusiastic support and help to this great effort, that all might be reminded of the pioneer courage, determination, and spiritual motivation there were the foundation of this community.

Prepared by the Historical Committee of Kanesville Restoration, Inc.

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